There's a reason the lyrics to contemporary country songs are regularly criticized – they've been known to suck. Fortunately, the works of Luke Dick are changing that. The pen behind such hit singles as Eric Church's "Kill a Word" and choice album cuts like Miranda Lambert's "Highway Vagabond" and Dierks Bentley's "Roses and a Time Machine," Dick is a something of an anomaly in the Nashville songwriting community: a former adjunct philosophy professor who stuffs his lyrics not with mentions of cut-off jeans and tailgates but with allusions to cheap sunglasses and DeLoreans.
Holed up in an East Nashville garage he transformed into the most creative and manly of writing rooms – a stuffed ibex and a set of gym lockers anchor the space – Dick lights a pipe and draws in the sweet tobacco. All manner of instruments, from basic guitars and an upright piano to the more exotic sitar, are within arm's reach. The musical inventory at his fingertips reinforces Dick's own songwriting mantra – no direction is too unconventional. Even in country music.
"With country, it's a peculiar keyhole, a cultural keyhole, you're writing within, and I know [that world] because I grew up in it. Country is oftentimes about affirming positive qualities. If it's a negative emotion, it's a passionate one about missing someone. There's an infinite amount of things you can do within the genre," says Dick, an Oklahoma native who moved to New York City before settling in Nashville three years ago.
In New York, he taught philosophy and began a fruitful career writing songs for commercials. "'Jingles' is the old-school world for it. Jingles are like 'da da da, buy our toothpaste,'" he sings, "whereas today's spec music moves in the same way that pop music works. It feels contemporary and, hopefully, fresh. That's usually when the ad company likes it and you get a win." A trailer for HBO's Boardwalk Empire and a Hilton ad rank among his most recognizable successes.
But it was a call from Nashville music publisher Arturo Buenahora Jr., instrumental in the careers of Bentley and Church, that set him on a different path. Buenahora, who knew Dick from an earlier stint in Nashville, asked if he had any songs for Bentley to record.
"I said, 'Man, I don't write stuff like that anymore. I've got songs about the afterlife and frogs and they're all in falsetto. There is nothing in there that Dierks is going to sing,'" Dick recalls with a laugh. "But Arturo fell in love with that project, and a couple years went by, I was in Nashville, and he said let's do some business together. And from then on, he's been putting me in [writing] rooms with people that understand me and I understand."
Like songwriter Natalie Hemby, with whom he wrote "Pink Sunglasses" for Lambert's new double album The Weight of These Wings. Together, they make a formidable team, gleaning song ideas from Instagram posts and challenging each other to find the most original lyrical reference.
"We try to one-up each other in weirdness and in the bling of a line – something you haven't heard yet," he says. "Something [thematically] happens in country, like a disco ball [appears in a song], and then it shows up again in five other songs. I don't ever want to be the fifth one; I want to be the first one. So you try to find those images that light up the brain."
But what makes Dick such a unique creature – as wild as that ibex he's named Cocoa atop his piano – is that he doesn't confine his creativity to the country landscape. When he's not in his writing room, he's often onstage with Republican Hair, his irreverent Nashville punk band. Despite its name, it's far from any political statement. Rather, it's just another outlet for songs that might not fit on Music Row (although Charlie Worsham did record a Republican Hair tune about being naked for his upcoming album).
Dick is also currently filming a documentary about his exceedingly unconventional childhood. As a toddler, he lived for five years inside an Oklahoma City strip club, the son of an exotic dancer. When it's finished, he'll flesh out the project – named Red Dog after the club – with more original music.
"When I interview these dancers, they tell me their favorite songs and I catalog it in my brain. I'm going to score it and write songs for it, and then make the record about the characters and the life and times of that period," says Dick, offering that Eric Church became an early supporter after viewing the trailer.
In artists like Church and Hemby, Dick sees kindred spirits – creative minds willing to push and pull country music in new directions. For Dick, there's no sillier argument than trying to define country.
"What makes something country is the lyrical perspective and the delivery of the lyric. I've seen plenty of articles that criticize somebody like Sam Hunt and I'm the last person that would ever do that," he says, citing Hunt's hit "Break Up in a Small Town." "You think Merle Haggard or Loretta Lynn weren't trying to move the genre along sonically? It's the vulnerability with which [Hunt] expresses heartbreak. You can't tell me his lyrical perspective is anything other than country, period."
We asked Dick to take us into the writing room for some of his most engaging songs.
"Kill a Word" (Eric Church, Luke Dick, Jeff Hyde; recorded by Eric Church)
"The first day writing with an artist is always really weird. You want to follow the lead of an artist, but as a writer you want to have your own voice and voice your own opinion about a song, and you're trying to figure out the right way to do it. So there is a self-consciousness that is not always healthy for a song. But I had a couple verses on 'Kill a Word,' and then Jeff Hyde added a verse, and Eric came over with an idea for a verse and a bridge that was strangely similar to one I already had written down. Eric is just a frenetically creative person who is always on the ball of his feet, leaning into something else and thinking about where he wants to go. And he has a way to execute it. It's a real luxury to write with an artist like that who has their own direction and is chasing down their own thing."
"Pink Sunglasses" (Rodney Clawson, Luke Dick, Natalie Hemby; recorded by Miranda Lambert)
"Natalie and I get ideas from each other's Instagrams. In one, her daughter had sunglasses on and she had this sassy face. Rodney and Natalie come over and I was imagining this type of Scott Joplin melody on the vocal and the idea was to have these Walmart rose-colored glasses that you can put on and it's a shield from the world. It's like that scene in The Big Lebowski, where the fascist cop is bitching at Lebowski and he doesn't want to listen to him, so he just puts his sunglasses on and turns him off. It'd be great to have a song where somebody uses sunglasses to turn the world off."
"Highway Vagabond" (Luke Dick, Natalie Hemby, Shane McAnally; recorded by Miranda Lambert)
"I remember parking over at a deli to get a sandwich and I didn't want to go in and see people. So I sat in my car for five, 10 minutes and had the line 'I want to go somewhere nobody knows; and I want to know somewhere that nobody goes.' I kept that and said it to Natalie and Shane and they loved it. Shane thought it was like a road song and we all came to the word 'vagabond.' It has this far-out production sound that is like country Siouxsie and the Banshees."
"Roses and a Time Machine" (Luke Dick, Adam James; recorded by Dierks Bentley)
"Adam came over with that title and I definitely wanted to write that. The idea of having a time machine in a song was really appealing to me. We worked it out and didn't have any rules for what somebody would sing. The day was us creating a character that was like the Dude [in Lebowski] meets country music – a guy who had maybe seen a documentary or two on quantum physics and could hazily connect some dots. We actually have two or three more songs that are the life and times of this character. We thought about doing an EP and putting out the before and after. Those are the [writers] I like to be around, who are willing to entertain that. And luckily Dierks got it. It takes a certain kind of person to cut a song like that that has levity to it."
"Magic" (Kip Moore, Westin Davis, Luke Dick; recorded by Kip Moore)
"I had a verse about thinking that love was bullshit and goes away and that it's just this sleight of hand. I was shocked Kip dug it because the first verse was about Houdini. 'Magic' isn't exactly a most original title for a song, but it really is magic sounding to me. That was the first one that ended up on one of his records."